Achieving the Right to Food: The Human Rights Challenge of the 21st Century

Thu, 11/01/2007

A family that goes to sleep hungry every night has typically been viewed as an object of sympathy. But as the legal standing of the right to food strengthens across the world, the view of those family members is changing. No longer are they seen through the lens of charity, but as people who face obstacles in fulfilling a fundamental human right. Countries on every continent are increasingly recognizing the right to food and taking action to help their people realize this right. The most vulnerable people – landless farmers, urban slum dwellers, people living in conflict zones, those affected by HIV/AIDS, the extremely poor – would benefit the most from achieving the right to food. It would advance all of society. The right to food is a birthright. A world where the right to food is achieved for everyone is a world where people at every level are active participants in society, have input to government policies and can demand action from their leaders, and governments are held accountable. It is also a world where resources are distributed and used more equitably and sustainable. Realizing the right to food would also address the commitment made at the World Food Summit in 1996 to reduce by half the number of undernourished people by 2015, and to Millennium Development Goal #One, to reduce by half the proportion of people afflicted by extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. What is the right to food? Simply by being born, everyone has the right to food. A person doesn’t have to do anything to “deserve” it; the right to food is a birthright. But this does not entitle a person to sit back and ask for free food. People are responsible for doing all they can to realize their own right to food. Governments that are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are responsible for ensuring that all those living within their borders have the means to do so. Broadly speaking, governments should create peaceful, stable, free and prosperous environments in which people can feed themselves in dignity. Even without a legal obligation to do so, countries have a moral obligation to ensure freedom from hunger. The right to food was formally recognized in the very first international human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Since then, this pledge has been gradually strengthened with the passage of measures at international and national levels. The right was further elaborated in 1999 with General Comment 12 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which oversees implementation of the Covenant. It states that the right to adequate food is realized “when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” Governments have to enable the right – by adopting policies and taking actions that ensure people can either grow or buy sufficient food. What is “adequate” food? It means an amount and variety of food sufficient to meet all of one’s nutritional needs for a healthy and active life. The right to food is more than the right to basic staples or to sufficient dietary energy. The Covenant calls for the right to food to be realized progressively to the maximum extent of available resources. Even countries not experiencing economic growth can progressively realize the right to food by eliminating obstacles any person or group might encounter. “Hunger is exclusion,” wrote Josue de Castro (1908-1973), the famous Brazilian doctor and anti-hunger advocate. “Exclusion from the land, from jobs, wages, income, life and citizenship. When a person get to the point of not having anything to eat, it is because all the rest has been denied. This is a modern form of exile. It is death in life.” With these words, Dr. de Castro summed up the desperation facing every one of the world’s 854 million hungry. Each of them is a person who has not been able to realize her or his right to adequate food and right to be free from hunger. The world can provide enough healthful food for all. Over the past two decades, states have increasingly acknowledged their obligation and taken action to realize this human right. The Millennium Development Goal #1 provides an opportunity at the local, national and international levels to further dialogue and enhance solidarity on the fundamental human right to food.